A Taste of Freedom

A Taste of Freedom

From A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul

A Taste of Freedom

If you find it in your heart to care for somebody else, you will have succeeded.

Maya Angelou

I was terrified. I was being transferred from the Federal Correctional Institute in Pleasanton, California, to the Women’s Federal Correctional Institute in Lexington, Kentucky, which was notorious for its overcrowding and violence.

Eight months earlier I had been convicted of fraud for my participation in my father’s business. Since I was a child my father had abused me physically, mentally and sexually, so when he came to me and asked me to take my mother’s place in the family business, I still saw him through the eyes of that five-year-old girl who knew that no one would help and nothing ever worked. It never occurred to me to say “No.” When the FBI showed up months later and asked if those were my signatures on the documents, I did what I had done since the time I was a child. I said, “Yes, it was me, not my father.” I took responsibility for the crime and was sentenced to serve my time in a maximum-security prison.

Before I went to prison, I entered an adult survivor program and began healing my childhood wounds. I learned about the effects of long-term abuse, and also that some of the memories and traumas could be healed. Because of my experience in the program I knew the violence, the chaos and the hyper-vigilance all around me were only outward manifestations of the chaos in my own mind, so I chose to change. I began to read books of truth and wisdom and began to write affirmations to remind myself who I truly was. When I heard the voice of my father in my mind saying “You are a nothing,” I replaced it with the voice of God saying “You are my beloved child.” Over and over, day after day I began changing my life thought by thought.

When I received word to “pack out,” I thought I was being transferred to a minimum-security camp. In order to prevent escape plans, the guards do not tell you where you are going or when you are leaving. But I was sure I had completed my journey in maximum-security prison and surely deserved to be in a minimum-security camp.

Arriving at FCI Lexington was indeed a shock. I was terrified, but I immediately had one of those serendipitous moments in which I realized I was still in the palm of God’s hand. When I was taken to my housing unit, instead of having a Kentucky-sounding name like Bluegrass, like most of the other units, the name of my unit was “Renaissance.” The name of my housing unit meant “rebirth.” Trusting God, I knew I would be safe. I simply had more to learn to be truly reborn.

The next day I was assigned to a work detail in building maintenance. It was our job to buff floors, put up sheet rock and learn similar skills we could carry with us back into society after our stay in prison. Our guard, Mr. Lear (not his real name), was also our teacher. Mr. Lear was extraordinary in that he was funny and kind.

Normally, there are only two rules between an inmate and a guard—the inmate does not trust the guard, and the guard does not believe anything an inmate has to say. But Mr. Lear was different. He tried to make our time with him not only informative, but fun. He never bent the rules, but he did not go out of his way to make our detail miserable by being sarcastic or demeaning.

I watched Mr. Lear for many days and saw him look at me with a funny expression on his face. I got that quite often since I looked like who I was—a suburban house-wife from Kansas. I did not look like I belonged in prison.

One day, Mr. Lear and I were alone on a detail, and he finally asked me, “What in the world are you doing in prison?” I told him the truth. He listened and asked if my father was in prison too. I told him no. There had been no physical criminal evidence pointing to him and, in fact, my sister and brothers had backed him in his story
that I was lying about his involvement at all.

Mr. Lear appeared angry at this and asked me, “Then why are you so happy?” I began sharing with him the simple truths that I was learning, such as happiness and peace are found within. I spoke to him about the real meaning of freedom and about how you had to first believe before you could eventually see the results of your belief.

I then asked Mr. Lear some questions. I asked how he could come to work day after day teaching inmates who did not want to listen and ask them to be enthused about a job they had no desire to do. How did he continue to stay happy and kind when he was working with people who didn’t want to be there in a system that was fraught with bitterness and anger?

Mr. Lear admitted it was hard and was, in fact, not his first job choice. He told me his dream was to be a full-time military person. But he was scared to act on this dream since he had the security of the prison job and had a wife and children to support.

I told him the desire in his heart was not placed there if there was no chance of fulfillment. I told him he could do anything he wanted, and I commented on the different degrees of prison we all experience.

These conversations continued to take place over several weeks, and my feeling of safety with Mr. Lear grew. I thought he was one guard I did not have to be afraid would suddenly take out his personal frustration or anger on me by accusing me of insubordination or outright disobedience, giving me extra detail or throwing me in segregation, as quite often happens in prison—especially to women inmates.

So you can imagine how shocked and saddened I felt when, for no reason that I could think of, Mr. Lear came to me and angrily said, “Mrs. Rogoff, I want you to go into my office, clean everything you see off of every shelf in there, and don’t come out until there is not one item left!”

I had no idea what I had done to upset Mr. Lear, but of course I had no choice but to obey. I said “Yes, sir,” and went into his office, my face burning with humiliation. My feelings were truly hurt. I thought he was different—I thought we had spoken person to person, but in reality, I was just another inmate to him.

Mr. Lear shut the door behind me and stood with his back to the door, looking up and down the hallway. I wiped the tears from my eyes and looked at all the shelves. Slowly, a huge smile came over my face. The shelves were completely empty, except for one juicy, red-ripe tomato and a shaker of salt. Mr. Lear knew I had been in prison for almost a year and had not eaten a fresh tomato in all that time. Mr. Lear not only snuck the tomato in from his own garden, he “pinned” for me, which meant he looked out to ensure no other guard would catch me. I proceeded to eat the most delicious piece of fruit in my life.

That simple act of kindness—treating me like a human being and not a number—helped me continue my journey of healing. I knew for sure that my stay in prison was not an accident, but an opportunity to heal my abuse issues at depth so that I could later heal others.

Mr. Lear was my guard, but he was also a friend. I have not seen him nor heard about him since my release from prison, but I cannot help but think of him every time I pull a tomato from my own garden. It is my hope that Mr. Lear is as free today as I am.

Barbara Rogoff

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners